Taxpayers on the hook for anti-soda lobbying campaigns

Members of Congress are turning up the heat on the Obama administration for doling out millions of dollars in grant money that was used to attack soda and, in some case, lobby for higher taxes.

As part of President Obama’s stimulus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided grants to communities for a variety of anti-obesity measures, including advertisements. The funding is part of a $230 million initiative called “Communities Putting Prevention to Work.” In many cases, the funds were used to attack American-made products like Coke and Pepsi.

Now lawmakers want to know why some communities, including the city of Philadelphia, appear to have used the federal funding to lobby for new taxes on those products.

During a recent congressional hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was asked to explain the administration’s position on lobbying with federal grant money. She implied it was appropriate for communities to spend the money on such activities — at least until Congress prohibited it last year.

Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) and Brett Guthrie (R-KY) sent Sebelius a follow-up letter asking for clarity and seeking an investigation. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) pressed Sebelius for answers at a recent hearing:

At least five grant recipients — Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii Iowa and the county of St. Louis, Missouri — used the money to secure support for legislation. Several others, including Delaware, Missouri, Nevada, New York and Philadelphia, lobbied for the introduction of legislation.

An even larger number — Philadelphia, Cook County (IL), King County (WA), Jefferson County (AL), Delaware, Nevada, New York and Chicago — reportedly used the money to lobby for tax increases.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has personally led a campaign to tax soda products. Documents showed how the city used a federally funded advertising campaign to press for passage of the tax hike. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported last month:

The American Beverage Association in 2011 hit Philadelphia and several other cities with requests for records on how federal money was used to craft anti-soda messages.

The requests in Philadelphia yielded several 2010 e-mails from Department of Public Health officials describing the urgency of getting advertisements out before the Council soda-tax vote.

In one e-mail to an advertising agency executive, Giridhar Mallya, Health Department director of policy and planning, recommended focusing print and online ads on “the harms of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

“We may also want to target media in certain Council districts,” he wrote, noting the date of the Council vote.

“The documents really speak for themselves,” said Chris Gindlesperger, American Beverage Association spokesman. “At a time when the city claims to lack resources, the city spends millions on attack ads instead of on programs that would have a meaningful impact on the community.”

This isn’t the first time the anti-soda campaign has faced criticism. In Philadelphia, the city spent $2.4 million on ads attacking soda. That was enough money to add 52 police officers, 54 firemen, 57 paramedics, 58 teachers or 88 EMTs. New York’s “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign used grotesque pictures and misleading information that even the city’s chief nutritionist called into question. The city received $15.5 million in federal funding for its anti-obesity efforts.

Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) recently introduced a bill to counter this growing trend of anti-obesity ads. DesJarlais’ legislation would prohibit the use of federal money for advertisements attacking soda.